Monday, November 27, 2006

The Implications of the Cracked Zune (and iPod)

It was clear that the protective DRM software of MS Zune player will be broken one day. Few people however predicted that it will happen so soon. Just one week (!) passed after the official launch of Zune and somebody already found out How To Use The Zune as a Hard Drive. In fact, using media player as a hard drive is a functionality that is normal to most of the competing players, however, for the MS-Zune users, this was excellent news. Going from there, other things became suddenly possible, including the very useful tip How To Bypass The Zune's WiFi Sharing DRM.

Both these methods force users to a cumbersome procedure (the second one is even more cumbersome than the first one), but, and this is strange, even then they are more attractive than the implicit, built-in way. But it is only logical, because users of the built-in solution are offered:

  1. to transfer files to their device only via a software that controls what can be transferred and what not
  2. to artificially limit abilities of their wi-fi-enabled gadget to very limited sharing of music and video

Good news for Zune?

It is a paradox, but both these news can be in fact considered good news for Zune. By removing artificial limitations of its functionality, the device becomes more appealing to its users and can be more successful on the market. (The problem however is, that Microsoft wanted to own a platform where users are locked-in. Opening the device to competitors will not make the trick.)

Wider Implications

Zune is not alone with this kind of problems. New software promises to unlock iPod, iTunes, the most popular player and music download service on the music market. In such a case, a broader question should be answered:

Does it ever make sense to create protecting mechanisms in today’s time, when such mechanisms can be broken in matter of days?

Long-term solution

As regards music, from a longer-term point of view no technology can avoid its copying. Instead of fighting against the inevitable, another approach should be chosen. We should invent such a business model of the music industry, which will be in compliance with the fact that music can – and will – be copied. Selling individual copies of music and trying to protect them through cumbersome (and sometimes even buggy) DRM systems is not the way forward. Instead, the music industry should learn from the software world. Similarly to the shift of software towards the “Software as a service” model, the future of selling music will be ensured by selling tracks to providers of interactive services. While music for personal usage will be for free, authors will get paid in the case of any commercial usage of their work.

Music will become the essence of new interactive services. These services will be so attractive that majority of users will prefer to consume music through these services than to download the free “pure” music. Thanks to this, future users will “pay” for most of the music they will listen to (the word “pay” is in quotations because typically even these services will be for free for the end user, as they will be sponsored by targeted advertisements). By the way, even today the majority of users listens to music through paid services (TV and radio channels). So this service-oriented model of music sales will be very natural as it will be built on existing behavior of users. It will also not require any new pattern of consumer behavior to be learned by users.

Why these services will be attractive?

Let us name just few examples of possible services of the future:

  • an interactive radio where virtual clubs of fans of certain genre or a particular music group are formed and served
  • educational service teaching its participants the basics of music
  • “smart” libraries allowing search for music “similar to” other music, or browsing through music that “people similar to me” like
  • automatic recommendations systems of various kinds
  • radio that “understands” my mood (thanks to seamless collaboration with other web apps, including my calendar) and automatically offers me what I want to listen to (of course, feedback is implemented, so e.g. a particular track can be skipped and system learns from this)

Why services?

Services have two nice properties:

    1. They cannot be copied.
    2. They are more attractive for customers than just the music alone. This will assure that future users will “pay” for most of the music they will listen to.

It is not a coincidence that the solution for the music industry copies developments of the software world. Software as a service made already its entry in Wikipedia. Why the “Music as a service” entry is still missing there?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The breaking news that didn’t make it to the headlines – End of the PC era

Last day of October, one small article appeared on the cNet News: Office Live almost out of the gate. I am afraid that mainstream media didn’t quite realize its real significance and implications.

A Forced Move

Anticipating Google's moves in the area of web based applications (Google Apps for Your Domain, but also and mainly Google Docs & Spreadsheets), Microsoft, the world's biggest software maker, has responded by introducing Microsoft Office Live -Web-based software for “small business and consumers”. By this move, Microsoft is starting to fight against its own core cash-cow products. And this is really unique in its history.

Cannibalizing its own cash-cow

At first, Office Live is cannibalizing its Exchange Server right now. At second, the longer-term consequences of this step will make the entire MS Office, which is the most important cash generating product for Microsoft, obsolete. Although Microsoft is trying to underplay its move and underlines that Microsoft Office Live is not intended as replacement of MS Office, but as an additional tool for “small business and consumers”, the reality will soon show up.

The Purpose of Documents

Let us forget marketing for now and be blindly honest in describing why documents exist: every document is created to be processed (read, edited, reviewed, approved...) by other people. That’s it. There is no one simple document which was created just with the purpose to be stored somewhere on the PC.

But only now the second part of our observation comes: there is currently no better platform to accomplish this purpose than the web. Web based applications are inherently better suited for information exchange than any PC-based, or PC-centric solution. Web based applications are not better for formatting documents or printing them, but they don’t need to be. They don’t need to compete with desktop apps in the same arena. Instead, they can use their real competitive advantage and realize the real purpose, why documents were created. They can help people to increase their productivity and effectiveness by allowing them an easier and more straightforward communication.

The Funny World of Today

It will not take long and today’s world and our present-day document practices will sound very funny. Imagine that we need to tell somebody important information today. At first, we write it on our computer, then we print it, then we insert it into an envelope and send it by mail, fax, or messenger, then the recipient reads it and takes notes to his own computer. Is this really the best way how computers should be utilized?

The Funny World of Email and Millions of Copies

OK, you say, “go on, we have the email today!” But that is just slightly better. Document must be saved to local disc first, then send as an attachment to the recipient, then saved by the recipient to his local disk, then the recipient makes his comments and remarks and saves the modified document on his computer (if he is smart, he chooses a different name), then he sends the revised file to a third person to his revision or approval, the third person sends it back to all of us... Well, at the end of the day we end up having tens of copies of different versions of the same file across several dozens computers of our firm, including several slightly differing copies on our own PC. Yes, I am aware of the “Version” function of today’s word processors. But for good reasons (we all are aware of) it is not a good practice to delete the original file when we receive a newer version...

End of the PC era

The conclusion is simple and straightforward. The PC paradigm is not a suitable platform for collaboration of people. At the onset of the mainstream mass internet, the document storage and processing paradigm should be revised from the ground up.

Don’t be confused by the fact that Office Live is marketed only to small and medium companies. The truth is that even big corporations do need to work with documents effectively.

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